From: Wade T. Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Thu 02 Jan 2003 - 15:42:13 GMT
U.S. TV Shows Losing Potency Around World
By SUZANNE KAPNER
LONDON — Want to catch the latest episode of the CBS hit
"C.S.I." in France? Tune in Saturdays at 11 p.m. How about the CBS show "Judging Amy" in Singapore? Try weekdays at midnight.
Those programs would have been candidates for prime time several
years ago. But today American dramas and sitcoms -- though some
remain popular -- increasingly occupy fringe time slots on
foreign networks, industry executives say. Instead, a growing
number of shows produced by local broadcasters are on the air at
the best times.
"Whereas American TV shows used to occupy prime-time slots, they
are now more typically on cable, or airing in late-night or
weekend slots," said Michael Grindon, president of Sony Pictures
The shift counters a longstanding assumption that TV shows
produced in the United States would continue to overshadow
locally produced shows from Singapore to Sicily. The changes are
coming at a time when the influence of the United States on
international affairs has chafed friends and foes alike, and
some people are expressing relief that at least on television
American culture is no longer quite the force it once was.
"There has always been a concern that the image of the world
would be shaped too much by American culture," said Dr. Jo
Groebel, director general of the European Institute for the
Media, a nonprofit group.
The American studios priced themselves out of the market just as
competition began to heat up abroad from newly privatized
commercial broadcasters and upstart cable and satellite
networks, industry executives say. Given the choice, they add,
foreign viewers often prefer homegrown shows that better reflect
local tastes, cultures and historical events. A recent example
is "The Tunnel," a miniseries about escapees from East to West
Germany, which was the eighth most popular show in Germany last
Unlike in the United States, commercial broadcasting in most
regions of the world — including Asia, Europe and to a lesser
extent Latin America, which has a long history of commercial TV
— is a relatively recent development.
A majority of broadcasters in many countries were either
state-owned or state-subsidized for much of the last century.
Governments began to relax their control in the 1980's by
privatizing national broadcasters and granting licenses to
dozens of new commercial networks. The rise of cable and
satellite pay television increased the spectrum of channels.
Relatively inexperienced and often financed on a shoestring,
these new commercial stations needed hours of programming —
fast. The cheapest and easiest way to fill air time was to buy
shows from American studios, and the bidding wars for popular
shows like "Dallas" or "Twin Peaks" were fierce.
The big American studios took advantage of that demand by
raising prices and forcing foreign broadcasters to buy
less-popular programs if they wanted access to the best-selling
shows and movies.
"The studios priced themselves out of prime time," said Harry
Evans Sloan, chairman of SBS Broadcasting, a Pan-European
broadcaster. Mr. Sloan estimates that over the last decade, the
price of American programs has increased fivefold even as the
international ratings for these shows have declined. "You cannot
win a prime-time slot with an American show anymore," he said.
In general, shows are priced by ratings. A foreign station would
pay less for an American show that was shown at an off-peak time.
At the same time, politicians, concerned about the cultural
influence of the United States, set quotas on American content.
In one example, Dr. Groebel of the media institute said, French
officials became alarmed when an increasing number of
adolescents appearing in court addressed the judge as "your
honor," a term gleaned from American detective shows.
But television executives point out that some American shows,
like "The Shield" and "Sex and the City," still attract a large
number of foreign viewers. And some still generate huge bidding
wars. Channel 4 in England was recently reported to have agreed
to pay $1.5 million an episode for "The Simpsons." Over all,
they said, foreign demand for American shows has actually
increased as the number of channels, including cable and
satellite, has grown.
A worldwide economic boom has brought foreign broadcasters more
advertising revenue, which they have invested in local
programming. Initially, many shows emulated successful American
formats. In Germany, for instance, a long-running hit called
"Das Traumschiff," or the "Dream Ship," is a remake of the American hit "Love Boat." But increasingly, homegrown programs mined historical events that resonated with their audience or added local twists to popular myths.
According to a survey by the European Audiovisual Observatory,
the highest ranking show in Italy last year was "Uno Bianca," a
dramatization based on a crime gang. No. 1 in France was "Julie
Lescaut," a long-running detective series.
First-run domestic fiction programs in the five largest European
Union countries — Germany, Britain, Italy, Spain and France —
increased 5.7 percent in 2001 and have grown 43 percent since
1996, the European Audiovisual Observatory recently reported.
That pattern has played out in many countries around the world.
A 2001 survey by Nielsen Media Research found that 71 percent of
the top 10 programs in 60 countries were locally produced in
2001, representing a steady increase over previous years.
American movies on television still drew big ratings, grabbing 9
percent of the top 10 slots, but American dramatic or comedic
series typically rated much lower than local shows.
In South Korea, for instance, the top-rated show in the third
week of last September was "The Era of the Abandoned Hero," a
locally produced soap opera that attracted 22.7 percent of the
population. By contrast, the highest-rated nonlocal show,
"C.S.I.," drew just 2.7 percent of all Koreans tuning in that week.
American shows, which are usually dubbed, fared even worse
elsewhere in Asia, where they took a back seat to programming
from Britain and China. In Malaysia, the highest-rated nonlocal
show for the same week in September was "Mr. Bean," a British
comedic series, and in Indonesia there was the Chinese movie
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
One exception is Japan, which has historically shown little
American programming but is now giving prime-time slots to some
shows. TV Asahi, for instance, is running the former Fox Network
show "Dark Angel" on Mondays at 8 p.m. And in Latin America,
where there has always been a more vibrant commercial
broadcasting industry, networks have tended to devote more time
to local programming, mainly to soap operas called telenovelas.
Some foreign producers have even turned the tables on American
studios by pioneering new formats, like reality television, that
they exported to the United States. John de Mol, chief executive
of Endemol, a Dutch company that produced the original "Big
Brother" and now licenses the show to broadcasters around the
world, including CBS, said that American studios had initially
overlooked the reality format. "They were playing it safe," he
The change has important implications for the future of
television financing, analysts who follow the industry said.
American broadcasters are still the biggest buyers of
American-made television shows, accounting for 90 percent of the
$25 billion in 2001 sales, according to Wilkofsky Gruen Associates, a consulting firm. But international sales, which totaled $2.5 billion last year, often make the difference between a profit and a loss on a show, executives said.
As the pace of foreign sales slows — the market is now growing
at 5 percent a year, down from the double-digit growth of the
1990's — studio executives are rethinking production costs.
Sony, for instance, has cut its production schedule by
two-thirds, Mr. Grindon said.
Some studios, like Sony, are countering the trend by opening
production centers abroad to better create shows tailored to
"Mein Leben und Ich," a German show produced by Sony that
translates as "Me and My Life," about the angst of a teenage
girl, is shown on Friday evenings at 9:15 and is first in its
time slot. "A Rich and Famous Governor," a Sony production about
a kindhearted but bumbling government official, has just been
approved for broadcast in Hong Kong and China.
And at least in Britain, American media companies may soon play
a larger role. Legislation that is expected to become law later
this year would relax restrictions on foreign ownership and pave
the way for American takeovers of British broadcasters.
Still, the changes are humbling for American studios used to
calling the shots abroad. "The worldwide television market is
growing," said David Hulbert, president of Walt Disney
Television International, "but America's place in it is
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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